Theatre Mirror Reviews - "House of Blue Leaves"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi

"House of Blue Leaves"


by John Guare
directed by [unknown]

Artie Shaughnessy ….. Gordon Vidaver
Ronnie Shaughnessy ….. Brian McNeany
Bunny Flingus ….. Kate Tellers
Bananas Shaughnessy ….. Robin Rapoport
Corinna Stroller ….. Laura Schweitzer
Head Nun ….. Kathy Condrick
Second Nun ….. Kristin Vieira
Little Nun ….. Erika Ritton
M. P. ….. Bill Price
Man in White ….. Dave London
Billy Einhorn ….. Larry Tish
Voice of Pope ….. Robert Bettencourt

A new theatre company – Fourth Wall Productions – has sprung up across from Copley Square, and they debut with John Guare’s still-quirky black comedy THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, which is brushed aside nowadays in favor of his more recent/mature work. The company has much to learn about putting on a show (who’s the director here?), but as their maiden effort, t’ain’t bad, and they feature some non-Equity performers worth keeping an eye on.

The time is October 4, 1965 – that historic day when the Pope came to New York. Artie Shaugnnessy, a middle-aged zookeeper and would-be songwriter, lives in Queens with his wife, Bananas (a semi-invalid who thinks she’s a dog), and his downstairs mistress, Bunny (who sleeps with him but will not cook for him until she gets that ring on her finger). With Bunny as his pushy muse, Artie’s burning goals are to (1) have Bananas institutionalized and (2) fly out to California and peddle his songs to Billy, a childhood friend turned Hollywood producer, so that he can break into the movies. Little does Artie know that his drafted son, Ronnie, is AWOL and hiding out in his former bedroom. Like his father, Ronnie is also seeking fame: turned down by Billy when he once auditioned for the movie role of Huckleberry Finn, Ronnie dons his old choir boy robes so that he can get close enough to the Pope in order to blow him up. A deaf Hollywood starlet, a trio of beer-swigging nuns, and Billy himself round out this cast of zanies. To top things off, Act One is a grimly funny three-character play, while Act Two is a more conventional ensemble romp (Mr. Guare admits he wrote his play after seeing Lord Olivier perform Strindberg one night and Feydeau the next – and it shows), so a crack director is needed to weave all of the strands – both dark and light – together.

Again, I must ask who is this HOUSE’s director, for that is precisely what the production lacks: a sense of direction. Right now, it drifts along, from A to B to C all the way down to Z, as if it were a run-through once the actors are “off book”. (Oddly, in a play that is filled with monologues spoken directly to the audience, the actors declaim not to us (only inches away, beneath their chins) but over our heads to the blank wall behind us. Why?) Again, I acknowledge this HOUSE is Fourth Wall’s debut, and so it may have to stumble and get a few more productions under its belt before it realizes that theatre is more than memorizing lines and not bumping into the furniture. Still, aside from a few good actors (and, therefore, a few good performances), most of the company don’t seem to be quite sure what Mr. Guare’s play is all about and how to play the shifting levels of comedy that Mr. Guare keeps sliding out at us.

I’m sorry to say this, but Gordon Vidaver is miscast as Artie. He has a natural sweetness and sincerity that could be winning in supporting roles, but, at present, he flounders as a leading man. Mr. Vidaver needs to learn how and when to move about on stage (he wanders incessantly, eyes down, as if he’s embarrassed to be looked upon) and he fails to project any sense of character (I felt I was watching Mr. Vidaver, not Artie, in his timid efforts to please). His line readings are dutiful but in monotone; not once does he “take the stage” to become the ringmaster of his own crazy circus. (Larry Tish, who plays Billy, projects the right kind of comic desperation and energy – with a touch of ham – that could make him an ideal Artie.)

With a dim Artie as their sun, the other actors have little to draw on and thus the production becomes a series of “turns”; still, some of them satisfy in and of themselves. Robin Rapoport is a marvelous Bananas, shuttling between fragility and wiriness; being out to sea and having both feet on the ground. Unfortunately, she and/or her director (again, who?) has leaned heavily on the Serious pedal and Bananas becomes far too psychologically realistic (not much laughter here, folks) instead of being the tragicomic cartoon that Mr. Guare has drawn. (With Mr. Tish as her Artie, Ms. Rapoport may have lightened up considerably and have had some fun with her character.)

Kate Tellers is amusing enough to hint at the memorable Bunny she could become in the future, and Kathy Condrick simply walks off with the show as the Head Nun: rotund and commanding, yet amazingly subtle (the secret to her hilarity). Her deadpan “There’s a choirboy in here” is a delight.

The scenery and costumes, not surprisingly, are done on the cheap, to which I have no quarrel; but the Community Church hall itself puts the production at a disadvantage: the room is a long, narrow shoebox, with little depth for the numerous “upstage” groupings. Thus, the actors are flattened out into comic strip dimensions and have a lot of space to cover when working the audience. (If you sit extreme left or extreme right, you will spend much of your time watching the show at an angle.)

These scribbles may seem harsh, but they are not meant to be. I wish the Fourth Wall well and may they continue to strengthen and grow. This past year, I have seen Ubiquity Stage (WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?) and Ryan Landry’s Gold Dust Orphans (CAMILLE) suddenly take giant steps towards becoming theatre companies for Boston to reckon with – and non-Equity ones, too! If the Fourth Wall can manage to hang on and start to learn (let alone hone) their craft, I don’t see why they cannot join the ranks. Their next production will be another “House” – THE HOUSE OF YES. So, we shall see….

"The House of Blue Leaves" (21 - 29 June)
The Community Church of Boston, 565 Boylston Street, BOSTON, MA

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